CHICAGO – July was supposed to be a minor diversion: a group of fringe players and B-listers, playing in a tournament stripped of its meaning. A summer frivolity - perhaps even a waste of time.
We may look back instead and see the 2013 Gold Cup , and the USA's fifth win in this continental tournament , as a major step forward for a national team that had looked lost only four months prior.
It was only March when the Americans looked a team in disarray. An unflattering portrayal of the team and its manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, had just been published by the Sporting News. Few argued with the substance of the report, and the team looked to be on the verge of implosion.
Fast forward to now. The Americans have won 11 games in a row - a record for the USA and a major achievement for any national team. They raised their fifth Gold Cup title after gritting out an ugly but deserved 1-0 win over Panama. If all goes to plan, the Americans will punch their ticket to the 2014 World Cup by September 10th. They have snatched back the crown as the best team in CONCACAF. For now.
What happened? The Americans closed ranks, rallied together, and exorcised the negativity that had surrounded this team. The players decided that they weren't going to let dissent tear their team apart. They went out and won a gritty and tough game in Denver, downing Costa Rica in a blizzard. Klinsmann also began to show that he was more than just a genial marketer for the game, with some shrewd moves that made it clear that players didn't have to like him - but they had better respect him.
Since that snowy day in March the Americans have gone from strength to strength. They held Mexico to a 0-0 draw at the fabled Azteca. They shocked Germany in the Centennial celebration. And since June 2, they haven't lost a single game.
The concrete walls in Soldier Field's basement this afternoon weren't thick enough to muffle the USA celebrations as their manager came out to face the media. Yes, he'd been given a champagne bath, and yes, he looked relaxed and happy - the tension that was so evident back in March seems gone for now.
"We wanted to send a signal today that we are the number one team in CONCACAF," said Klinsmann. "Tomorrow, we will see. But this team deserves this. They were the best team in the tournament and they deserved to win it."
But tellingly, Klinsmann did not take credit for the transformation. He spoke, instead, of how sorry he was to have to leave two talented players - Mix Diskerud and Michael Orozco - on the bench at the start of the match. He spoke of how important this tournament had been for the United States to find depth. He noted that Mexico had had to field three teams in three different tournaments this summer, "and you saw how difficult that is."
"I want to have two, three people fighting for every position," said Klinsmann. "That's how you find out how deep you are."
What he didn't say was how he had managed to excise a cancer before it consumed his team. He mentioned only in passing Landon Donovan's long way back to the squad after the Galaxy star's ill-timed sabbatical: "he had to swallow a couple pills, as every player has to do." He didn't mention how cleverly he had built the team from the back, crafting a stable defense that finally allowed the Americans to play something close to the attacking game fans here crave. He credited DaMarcus Beasley, Donovan, Matt Besler, and might have gone down all 27 players on the roster had time not run out.
Klinsmann also didn't mention how ugly a Gold Cup final this truly had been. Finals often are. They are tense and teams more often play not to lose than to win. Even by those standards, this one was especially tedious. Soldier Field had seen a massive pre-sale of tickets on the expectation that Mexico would meet the Americans here, but when El Tri were dumped out in the semis by Panama, the air went out of the occasion.
That carried over to the play on the field, and it is telling that the biggest moment in the first half came when Stuart Holden went down after a seemingly innocuous challenge from Alberto Quintero. Clutching his right knee, Holden was immediately taken to the sideline with what was reported initially as a sprained right knee. Klinsmann said that the team feared it was far, far more serious, raising the question that Holden may again be sidelined, indefinitely.
The difference in this slog, as it had been more than once in this tournament, was Brek Shea. "He's unpredictable, to opponents, and to himself," said Klinsmann to laughter. "But that's a card you want to play." He let a beat pass, and then added that Shea has a lot of work to do. But he was in the right place to score the winner in the 69th minute, and that's what counts.
Next up for the Americans is another benchmark, as Klinsmann puts it. The Americans face Costa Rica and Mexico in back-to-back World Cup qualifiers, and can seal their berth for the 2014 World Cup early should results break their way. And then, after that, comes the World Cup itself.
There's a lot of work left to be done. Klinsmann isn't making any promises. But this American team is starting to look like a side that can win tough games against any opponent they face. They are looking tricky, and they are looking telepathic in their understanding. They just might have something going. It might have started right here.